Frederick Matthias Alexander (“F.M.” as he liked to be called) was born in Tasmania, Australia in 1869. He grew up on a large farm. He was a keen observer of nature, especially how humans and animals moved.
However, he was a sickly child and asthmatic. Because of his health he could not attend school with other children and was tutored at home. His tutor was passionate about Shakespeare and passed on this passion to FM.
In his early twenties Alexander moved to Sydney to start an acting career. In Sydney in the 1890’s, it was very popular for actors to recite long passages of Shakespeare.
Alexander became a well-respected actor but the breathing issues that plagued him as a child were now jeopardizing his career. Alexander had laryngitis. His voice would become hoarse during his performance. His friends and colleagues reported that they could hear him gasp for breath while on stage.
This was well before the time of amplified sound and microphones. Alexander knew that it would be the end of his career if he could not solve his vocal problems.
He sought the help of medical doctors and was told to rest his voice. This helped to a certain extent, but when he got back on stage he would once again become hoarse.
It was at this point that Alexander realized that it was something that he was doing that was bringing about his hoarseness, since when he rested and stopped doing his voice would improve.
He was determined to find out what this doing was.
Using a mirror, he watched himself speak with an “indoor” voice. Then he observed himself while reciting and projecting as if he was on stage. Eventually he was able to detect three habits that were present when he spoke normally, but which became more pronounced when he went to recite.
- The first habit was “sucking in air”.
- The second habit was what he described as “depressing his larynx.”
- The third and most important habit was “pulling his head back and down”.
He tried to stop these habits.
He could not prevent the first two habits, no matter how hard he tried. Eventually he focused on the third habit: pulling the head back and down. He found that he was able to prevent this habit and to his astonishment the other two habits disappeared!
Alexander then realized that the relationship of the head, the neck and spine acts as a coordinating mechanism for the entire body. If the relationship of the head and the neck is poorly coordinated, the functioning of the whole is poorly coordinated as well.
Alexander grew up on a farm with horses. He loved riding horses. Equestrians have known for millennia that if you change the carriage of the horse’s head then you change the way the horse moves. The art of riding is to establish grace and co-ordination with your horse. When a rider gets on her horse her body weight disturbs the horse’s natural balance. It is the job of a good rider to move the horse into better balance. When a horse is off balance or afraid it hollows its back and lifts its head in the air. When a horse is balanced well, the hind end comes underneath the horse, the back rounds slightly and the poll or the top of the horse’s head drops.
To Alexander his observations of the relationship of the head to the spine and to the rest of the body made perfect sense.
Alexander’s improved voice and breathing brought other actors and singers to him for instruction. His reputation grew and he was known as the “breathing man.”
Soon people realized that not only did their voice improve but also that other aches and pains disappeared as well.
At the urging of a friend in the medical community, Alexander moved to London in 1904 to bring his observations to a wider audience.
He spent the rest of his life improving his technique. He was highly respected in London and worked with many influential people of the time. The famous educator and philosopher John Dewey was a student of his as well as the author Aldous Huxley and the playwright George Bernard Shaw. He wrote four books providing insights on the development and application of the Alexander Technique:
- Man’s Supreme Inheritance
- The Use of the Self
- Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual
- The Universal Constant in Living